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Serial Killer Myth No. 5: All Victims Are Female

Serial killers target men and children, as well as women.

The myth that all serial killer victims are female is a corollary to one stating that all serial killers are male. According to the stereotypical imagery presented in Hollywood films and best-selling novels, male serial killers prey exclusively on female victims. This is simply not true. Just as not all serial killers are male, not all serial killer victims are female, although it is true females do represent the majority of the victims.

The FBI has been compiling data on the victims of serial killers, including their gender, for nearly 30 years. The FBI data reveal that women are significantly more likely than men to be victims of serial killers but, contrary to media stereotypes, they certainly do not represent all of the victims. Some serial killers, like Dennis Rader (“Bind, Torture, Kill”), murder men, women and children. Other notorious and prolific serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy ("The Killer Clown") exclusively killed men.

According to FBI data, women accounted for 70 percent of the 1,398 known victims of serial killers during the 1985 to 2010 time frame (1). By way of comparison, females represented only 22 percent of all other homicide victims in the U.S. during that same time period. Based on these statistics, the victim is 3.5 times more likely to be female in a serial murder incident than in a non-serial homicide incident.

Cold-blooded psychopaths such as Ted Bundy and Joel Rifkin who target women typically plan their crimes meticulously in advance. This is counter to the 99 percent of all homicides that are not committed by serial killers in the U.S. The vast majority of murders are not premeditated events and they involve a male rather than a female victim.

More precisely, the typical murder in the U.S. involves one man killing another man either in a momentary fit of rage or to help him commit/conceal another crime such as armed robbery. The motives for serial killing are quite different than for the average murder and those differences result in a divergent victim profile, including gender. Moreover, there are important reasons why the victims of serial killers are so frequently female and the reasons are unique to male serial killers and their pathological needs.

The presence of a sexual motive often leads a male serial killer to prey on women. As noted by special agent Mark Hilts, chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit No. 2 which profiles serial killers, a “large number" of male serial killers have a sexual motive for their crimes. In fact, it is estimated that sex is a leading motive for approximately 50 percent of all male serial killers (2).

Sex is rarely the only motive for serial killers, however. As explained by special agent Hilts, "Sex can be a motivation, but it's a motivation in conjunction with something else.” Although a sexual element is often involved in serial homicide, particularly when committed by males, sex is generally found in combination with another motive such as sadism, thrill-seeking, or a thirst for power and control.

More specifically, a deep lust for the sheer act of killing combined with a sexual motive, and perhaps a third motive such as thrill-seeking, normally leads a male serial killer to target female victims. I offer shocking information about the motivations, fantasies and wicked deeds of serial killers in my book, Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.

References

(1) Hargrove, T. 2011. Women account for 70 percent of serial killer victims, FBI reports. KSHB-TV online, March 1.

(2) Morton, R.J. 2005. Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

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